Saturday, May 29, 2010

A Ghost from the Past

Claiming that it was "a good day for a hanging" Jean Chretien returned to Parliament Hill last week. He proclaimed public service "a very noble life;" and, like most former politicians, he enjoyed being the centre of attention.

Of course, some in the audience were drawing lessons from his time as prime minister. Stephen Harper -- in a remark that revealed more about himself than it did about Chretien -- said, "He knew instinctively what it took to win." Perhaps the lesson Harper took from Chretien also explains why the present prime minister didn't bother to attend the ceremony in the Centre Block two years ago, when they hung Joe Clark's portrait next to Chretien's.

But the man who should really be pondering Chretien's success is Michael Ignatieff. To his credit, Ignatieff is not the dictator Chretien was. But, as Lawrence Martin wrote in The Globe and Mail last week, anyone trying to mimic "the old lion's tough ways" is taking the wrong lesson. "He was at his best," Martin wrote, "when he was the little guy from Shawinigan, when he stood his ground, at one with the values of everyday people and the country."

It was when Chretien insisted that the Clarity Bill would be passed; when he refused to join George Bush's "coalition of the willing;" and when -- with Paul Martin's help -- he destroyed the "debt wall" which Brian Mulroney and his predecessors had bequeathed to him, that Chretien earned his place in Canadian history. He could mangle both official languages; and (when the pen he gave Queen Elizabeth refused to cooperate) he could mutter "merde" -- a remark which seems to have endeared him to the monarch.

Micheal Ignatieff would do none of these things. But neither will he stand his ground. When he told Mr. Harper his time was up, he then decided to give the prime minister more time. After he said that Quebec's new health care user fee was acceptable, he backtracked and said that it could not stand. And, after saying that the Auditor General should not be allowed to scrutinize MP's expenses, he now says he will accept Ms. Fraser's oversight.

He should have accepted that oversight in the first place. But that is not the point. When Mr. Ignatieff takes a stand, Canadians have come to expect that -- like this country's climate -- it can change quickly and radically. Ignatieff's vacillation is the reason Liberal poll numbers are now in the 25% range.

Ignatieff is a very intelligent and a very articulate man -- in both English and French. But what he lacks is Chretien's political experience. When Chretien became prime minister, he had toiled in Ottawa for nearly thirty years. He had apprenticed under Pierre Trudeau and Mitchell Sharp; and he had served as the Minister of National Revenue, the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, the President of the Treasury Board, the Minister of Industry Trade and Commerce, the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Energy Mines and Resources, the Minister of External Affairs, and Deputy Prime Minister. In short, he knew how Ottawa worked.

Michael Ignatieff has had an illustrious career. And he has apprenticed under Issiah Berlin. But he lacks Chretien's experience and Chretien's common touch. Those deficits are becoming more -- not less -- apparent.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Triumph of Cynicism

When historians tell the story of the Harper government, they will surely dwell on the fact that this prime minister was Cynicism personified. That cynicism was apparent again last week, when Mr. Harper had a supposedly freewheeling discussion with Canada's youth. When the event was over, one of the participants -- Raimey Gallant, a student at Winnipeg's Red River College -- revealed that questions had to be submitted to the Prime Minister's Office before the exchange took place.

Ms. Gallant had asked the Prime Minister,

In light of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and the reluctance of the companies involved to accept responsibility, what new controls for oil drillers will the Canadian government put in place to reduce the risk of oil spills in Canadian waters and ensure the continuance of marine ecosystems and the sustainability of our fisheries?

Senator Mike Duffy -- who used to call himself a journalist before Mr. Harper appointed him to the Senate -- never asked the question. And two Quebec students, who wished to remain anonymous, insisted that, while Duffy posed the questions they had submitted, the questions themselves had been rewritten.

James Travers, a much better journalist that Duffy, noted in The Toronto Star that "keeping facts from ruining a slick story has been standard operating procedure in the four years since the Conservatives came to power promising a new era of truth and transparency. But even measured against that status quo, Harper's screening of questions from 120 university co-eds arches the eyebrows."

Mr. Harper insisted during the encounter that any concerns which were not related to the economy were, in his words, "a sideshow." Ms. Gallant was amazed at the Prime Minister's audacity. "The whole sideshow thing, I think that insulted me the most," she said. "I was really upset by that. I find it extremely insulting because we are Canadians, too, and these issues are important to us. If our Prime Minister thinks they are sideshows -- I mean this isn't a government of one."

Ah, but Ms. Gallant has hit the nail on the head. After all, this is the Prime Minister who -- when faced with a non confidence vote in the House -- and who -- when questioned about possible Canadian complicity in the torture of Afghan prisoners -- simply prorogued Parliament. Mr. Harper stands for two things: the acquisition and the exercise of power. All the rest is a sideshow.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Libertarian Mob

In a recent article in The New York Review of Books, Mark Lilla puts the Tea Party Movement in historical context. It is, he writes, the natural outgrowth of both the Counter Cultural Revolution of the 1960's and the Reagan Revolution of the 1980's. On the surface, the latter seems to be a reaction to the former. But, in reality, both are cut from the same piece of cloth:

A new form of populism is metastasizing before our eyes, nourished by the same libertarian impulses that have unsettled American society for half a century now. Anarchistic like the Sixties, selfish like the Eighties, contradicting neither, it is estranged, aimless and as juvenile as our new century. It appeals to petulant individuals convinced that they can do everything themselves if they are only left alone, and that others are conspiring to keep them from doing just that.

Like Huck Finn, they wish to live on a raft and have little contact with the civilization on the shore -- which, they see as corrupt, while they are noble savages. The problem, of course, is that occasionally one has to go ashore for supplies. And occasionally -- like the two frauds with whom Huck and Jim share that raft -- civilization invades your living space.

From their imaginary raft, Lilla writes, the Partiers have conjured up a vision in which

. . . educated elites -- politicians, bureaucrats, reporters, but also doctors, scientists, even schoolteachers -- are controlling our lives. And they want them to stop. They say they are tired of being told what counts as news or what they should think about global warming; tired of being told what their children should be taught, how much of their paychecks they get to keep, whether to insure themselves, which medicines they can have, where they can build their homes, which guns they can buy, when they have to wear seat belts and helmets, whether they can talk on the phone while driving, which foods they can eat, how much soda they can drink . . . the list is long.

There is something appealing about their rebellion. And so, over the years, citizens in both the United States and Canada have voted for governments which have advocated deregulation -- or, in the words of the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, have "no place in the bedrooms of the nation." And they have approved, as governments dismantled the mechanisms which previous generations constructed to deal with disasters.

For some problems require a communitarian response -- because they are too big to be solved by individuals. The past decade has had more than its share of such problems. Hurricane Katrina, the Financial Meltdown of 2008, and the present catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico are beyond individual solution. Nonetheless, a significant number of people refuse to recognize that fact. And, when president Obama proposes a solution for a particularly big problem -- the lack of medical care for 40 million Americans -- they rise in anger, convinced that the president is a new King George, who must be deposed.

They call themselves "conservatives." But they are the diametrical opposites of Edmund Burke. Rather than preserving social institutions they are hell bent on tearing them down. Rather than standing against the mob, they are the mob -- in Lilla's phrase, "the libertarian mob." And, as such, they represent a challenge to both political parties. As a mob, they are a clear and present danger. But their anger cannot be denied. The challenge for political leaders is to direct that anger rather than -- like the Jacobins of the French Revolution -- to follow it.

For Obama, they are a conundrum. Led by Glenn Beck -- who looks at Obama and sees Hitler; and Rush Limbaugh -- who looks at the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and sees an administration conspiracy; and Pat Buchanan -- who looks at Obama's choice to replace John Paul Stevens and sees "too many Jews" -- they are Ignorance with a big megaphone.

But the solution is not a bigger megaphone. The solution will require all the rhetorical skills Obama possesses -- and the ability to think beyond the anger of today.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Wages of Righteousness

Last week, on Fox News, Bill O'Reilly and Sarah Palin expounded on their conviction that "America is a Christian nation." Palin -- who Steve Benen of Washington Monthly called "the former half term governor" -- claimed that those who wrote the Constitution were "quite clear that we would create law based on the God of the Bible and the 10 commandments. It's pretty simple."

Her formulation is, indeed, pretty simple. The problem is that it is simply not true. Consider what three of the founding fathers -- all of whom eventually became president -- wrote about Christianity:

Thomas Jefferson: "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature. The greatest enemies of Jesus are the doctrines and creeds of the church."

James Madison: During almost fifteen centuries, the legal establishment known as Christianity has been on trial and what have been the fruits, more or less, in all places? These are the fruits: pride, indolence, ignorance and arrogance in the clergy. Ignorance and arrogance and servility in the laity, and in both clergy and laity superstition, bigotry and persecution."

John Adams: Nowhere in the gospels do we find a precept for Creeds, Confessions, Oaths, Doctrines and whole carloads of other foolish trumpery that we find Christianity encumbered with.

None of these men raised any objection to the teachings of Christ. But experience had led them to distrust his followers. And, while they insisted that there should be no state church -- no theocracy in the United States -- they specifically made room for freedom of religion. They were emphatic, however, in their belief that religious freedom could only exist as long as the nation's affairs were free from the entrenchment of any religion.

Many on the right believe that what the United States needs is a dose of "that old time religion." It is a disposition which many in the Harper government share. It rears its head most noticeably in the government's tough on crime agenda. As Jeffrey Simpson wrote last week in The Globe and Mail, ". . . this is also a government that has scorned the expert advice of every criminologist, judge and lawyers group in Canada, even as they say how ineffective, useless and even dangerously counterproductive are most of the Conservatives' 'tough on crime' proposals." For, like the Palinites, the Harperites see themselves as the righteous. And righteousness, they believe, is fact-free -- because it is self evident.

We are free to disagree. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, we are all entitled to our own opinion; but we are not entitled to our own facts. What is most annoying with modern Conservatism is its insistence that facts can and should be ignored. How else can one explain the success of the "former half term governor," or a Canadian prime minister who claims to be an economist?

Sunday, May 02, 2010

A Question of Character

The day after Peter Milliken delivered his historic ruling on the Afghan prisoner file, the Prime Minister rose in the House and declared, "The government cannot break the law, it cannot order public servants to break the law, nor can it do anything that would necessarily jeopardize the safety of Canadian troops."

That comment led Don Martin, in The National Post, to opine:

Silly people. Have they learned nothing about this prime minister in the last four years? Mr. Harper allowing Bloc Quebecois MPs access to secrets deemed a threat to Canadian security? Never happen. And even if rival MPs are granted seek and find powers, any smoking gun detainee documents would be declared a matter of national security and never see the light of parliamentary day.

And Andrew Coyne, in Macleans, was having none of the prime minister's argument. Mr. Harper, he wrote, was trying to create "total strategic confusion."

. . . the whole argument's bogus. No one is asking the prime minister to break the law. The conflict of which he complains exists only in his head. This was a key point of the speaker's ruling: a law may impose a general prohibition on the release of certain documents, but unless it expressly states that the ban applies to Parliament, it doesn't. The presumption, that is, is in favour of parliamentary privilege.

When commentators on the right see through the prime minister's posturing, it is obvious that something is seriously amiss. Mr. Coyne has been skeptical of Mr. Harper's "conservatism" for some time. The late Dalton Camp saw through the ruse early. The prime minister is a libertarian, not a conservative; and his path to power has been -- and is -- a carefully managed bait and switch campaign.

It may be that Mr. Harper will conclude, with Falstaff, that "discretion is the better part of valour." It may turn out that there is no -- as Mr. Martin suggested -- "stink bomb somewhere in the paper mountain or sitting at the bottom of a shipping container en route from Afghanistan." If there is no damning evidence in the files, then Mr. Harper's contempt for his opponents has assumed pathological proportions. If there is a stink bomb in those files, we are all besmirched. In either case, the man should be removed in office.

It seems pretty clear that, in the next election, Mr. Harper will run as a competent and patriotic manager. It is now up to the opposition to reframe the debate. It comes down to a straightforward question: Is the prime minister a democrat? Or is he the man who would be king? It's all about character.